It's not just conservative Christians who tune in to this cycle of apocalypse and redemption, however. New Agers and left-wing environmentalists subscribe to a theory that the world is undergoing what they call Earth Changes--a time when, because of humanity's degradation, the climate severely reacts. Many of these believers say the United States will be almost completely submerged in seawater when the Earth Changes are complete.
"When people leave behind the Christian version of the apocalypse, they don't quit being apocalyptic," O'Leary says. "They switch brands."
Even the media, perhaps reacting to their own cycle of hype and emotion of this moment, have been priming the doomsday pump. The normally bloodless Associated Press wrote this description: "When Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans on Monday, it could turn one of America's most charming cities into a vast cesspool tainted with toxic chemicals, human waste and even coffins released by floodwaters from the city's legendary cemeteries."
Interestingly, last year's string of Florida hurricanes didn't seem to cause much doomsday rhetoric. But Katrina is different for a few important reasons: It's much larger than usual storms; it hit a region that is home to one-fourth of U.S. oil production at a time when Americans are feeling tremendous anxiety over rising fuel costs; it happened a couple weeks after Israel pulled out of Gaza; and it conjures horrific images of fetid water contaminating a city with a Sodom and Gomorrah reputation.
The thought of this region, or even the nation, being somehow punished for its sins, conjures twin feelings of excitement and dread among apocalyptic thinkers. On one hand, they seem delighted that a divine plan appears to be unfolding. With horrific events such as this, they believe, God (or Mother Nature) has shown them the world is so evil that it is closer than ever to the end of human history--which means they will spend eternity in a happier place. Yet they also believe God (or Mother Nature) is punishing Americans. That gives rise to their urgent need to stave off destruction through prayer, scolding, and trying to convert people to their way of thinking.
It's worth noting that end-times fever also broke out during the Persian Gulf War, around the turn of the millennium five years ago, and then around September 11, as it has many times in history. Each time it happens, Americans (and humanity for millennia before) become convinced the End is upon them because they've sinned and that God or Mother Nature is angry.
Yet if people actually read the Bible, they can just as easily find an alternate view of the divine, a view that is diametrically opposite the wrathful avenger. The Book of I Kings reads: "Behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind and earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice."